Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Sitting Down with the Bloggers

greg2-blog480The sittee would be Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who held a webcast with a number of nuclear-oriented bloggers. It was moderated by blog roll favorite Dan Yurman from Idaho Samizdat and ran for about 90 minutes. Questions were submitted in advance and at the meeting and although Jaczko sidestepped some uncomfortable ones, at least somewhat, he largely aimed to be direct in his answers.

For example, Jaczko was asked to explain the 50-mile evacuation zone he recommended for Americans in Japan after Fukushima when American evacuation plans only call for a 10-mile evacuation zone. Jaczko said (this is a bit paraphrased):

We had a lot of internal discussions about what we were seeing [in Japan] – based on that, we did some analysis, took some best judgments and ran some simple codes to show that there was a potential for [radiological] release up to 50 miles. If this had happened in the United States, we would have recommended enhanced evacuations.

Some of the q-and-a needed more than the format allowed. Jaczko said this in March about Fukushima Daiichi:

"We believe at this point that unit 4 may have lost a significant inventory, if not lost all, of its water," Jaczko told a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. 

Jaczko was careful to say this assertion was based on available information, but it was picked up by most news services. Another tidbit from the ABC story, which called this “a potentially catastrophic situation.”

Japan's nuclear safety agency and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the complex, deny water is gone from the pool. Utility spokesman Hajime Motojuku told the Associated Press the "condition is stable" at unit 4.

Who had this right? The Japanese. Here’s what Jaczko said about this today:

This was a small piece of what we were looking at. The issue that we were more concerned with was the fact that you had such high radiation at the site, radiation would have been difficult. The lesson we took from this is that we need adequate instrumentation to monitor the pools. It something [such as the March assertion] proves to be inaccurate over time, that’s to be expected.

Fair enough, yet all that saw that widely reported ABC story (and many other stories on the same hearing) carried away the idea that the fuel pool had emptied. This is important as many people, including members of Congress, still believe the used fuel pools were a major issue at Fukushima. In fact, they proved to be not an issue at all. (Not that Jaczko is wrong about better instrumentation.)


Jaczko made a point that is sometimes forgotten: not everything about nuclear energy is under the purview of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Ideally, the commission only deals with issues of safety – it’s a big issue, with many moving parts, but it is singular.

So, for example, when he was asked about the recommendations on used fuel offered by the Blue Ribbon Commission, Jaczko pointed out that most of them will not concern the NRC until and unless Congress selects a new repository site. Then the NRC would have a role in regulation and licensing.

Jaczko also pointed out that just because the NRC issues a 40-year license or 20-year license extension does not mean that a plant will utilize the full term of the license. He pointed to New Jersey’s Oyster Creek, which will close early, and Vermont Yankee, which might close almost directly after getting a license extension due to a conflict with the state of Vermont. All the license does is certify that the projected plant will be safe for operation (or continues to be safe in the case of an extension), not that it ever has to be built and/or operated.

He also said, for fans of them, that the NRC is ready to review license applications for small reactors – as long as they are light water reactors, which the commission readily understands. Newer designs will take more time.


Jaczko’s desire to be responsive but not create new news was evident throughout the session, helped by a lack of follow-up questions that might have zeroed in on the issues a bit more. For example, asked about Yucca Mountain, he said, in short, “We [the NRC] have terminated our work. We no longer have a [used fuel] program. We will see if Congress will come up with another used fuel repository.”

All of which is true, but a follow-up series of questions might have explored how the situation developed after the Atomic Safely Licensing Board said that DOE could not withdraw its license application and the commission later affirmed that decision. Stopping the licensing process wouldn’t seem to be a choice for the NRC, but that’s what it did. It would have been interesting to know how the NRC sidestepped the licensing process. There might well be a good answer.


I know this account sounds overly critical, but really, the session was highly rewarding, and Jaczko was game for a wide range of questions that pushed him considerably outside the kind of grilling he sometimes experiences on Capitol Hill – no one at this meeting was a novice on nuclear issues and no one had an ideological ax to grind. I hope Jaczko or one of the four commissioners will continue to engage bloggers.

And Dan Yurman did a great job first time out – a whole plume of feathers for his cap, I say.

Gregory Jaczko, waiting for the blogging goons to jump him.


djysrv said...

As the moderator of the session, I'd like to thank NEI for its review. FYI - over a third of the questions were follow-up questions which were asked on-the-fly.

Also, Jaczko was friendly, gracious, conversational, and fully engaged in the 90-minute session. He put a lot of time into it.

Of course, our session isn't the same thing as today's event at the National Press club, but then we're just bloggers :-)

Anonymous said...

"the Atomic Safely Licensing Board said that DOE could not withdraw its license application and the commission later affirmed that decision."

That's not quite correct, and the distinction is important. The commission did not affirm the ASLB decision. The commission said it was split on whether to affirm or overturn the board, and shut down the proceeding.

That order has a lot of people scratching their heads, and there's still an active lawsuit about it. But legally, the commission has still not voted on DOE's appeal of the ASLB decision.

Anonymous said...

The webinar was a collaborative effort of the American Nuclear Society and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The role of ANS as a co-sponsor should be noted as the officers of the scientific and technical society approved the use of the group's resources to support the event.